Monday, May 25, 2009

So, to pick up a story that I barely started a few weeks ago and then let lapse..... I was so taken with Michael Chabon's book of essays Maps and Legends that when we returned from our vacation, I decided I would try to read some of his other stuff. I confess I've tried before. Years ago, I read approximately the first chapter each of Summerland and The Final Solution, but neither convinced me to keep going. But (obviously) I never really gave either of them a chance, so I was willing to give him another shot. generous of me, yes? I also wanted to find books by his wife, Ayelet Waldman. Somehow I knew from before that his wife was a lawyer turned mystery-writer, although I can't remember how. I think I might have read an interview with her in some magazine. I had thought the pair of them intriguing at the time, and since she is mentioned several times in Maps and Legends in ways that intrigued me further, I decided to check her books out as well.

So at our local library, they had on the shelf Chabon's first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and a more recent one which is something along the lines of The Yiddish Policeman's Union. So I came home with those, plus The Jungle Book, so I could read that before reading Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book in context (more about that in another post). They didn't have any of Waldman's mysteries checked in, although they did have her more recent literary fiction novel (the name of which is escaping me, but it's about a mother dealing with the death of her child), which I decided to pass on since it sounded too depressing.

But I was still taking classes, and time was at a premium, so the books just sat there for a couple of weeks. Then, through a series of odd coincidences which are at the same time quite bizarre but utterly uninteresting, I found myself the winner of a Facebook drawing to receive a free copy of Waldman's new book of essays, The Bad Mother. Waldman has created a bit of a stir with her bracing honesty about her experiences as the mother of four children. So my autographed copy of the book arrived on Tuesday of the week when I had a take-home exam due on Wed, another one due on Thurs, and a gazillion other things to do. I left it out on the counter, as my reward for making it through the week. When I woke up disturbingly early on Saturday morning, finally done with school and (of course) unable to sleep, I started reading--about 6:30 a.m.

And by 11:30 I had finished it. Waldman is amazing. First of all there are her refreshingly candid stories about being a mom, wrapped in none of the cotton candy that most maternal stories are, and yet still managing to convey her utter devotion to her children. Even though I haven't had an abortion and I'm not bipolar (yet), her experiences more closely match up with mine than any other mom-lit I've read (possible exception: Anne Lamott). And on top of that, she's a terrific writer. Or at least, the kind of writer of non-fiction essays that I enjoy reading: funny, sympathetic, argumentative in a garrulous sort of way, occasionally snarky, always intelligent. I loved the book. Of course I had to send her an e-mail thanking her for the autographed copy of the book, in which I was entirely too gush-y, and to which she replied quite kindly and graciously. So, I will be finding more of her books as well. Maybe I will even attempt the depressing one.

But none of that prepared me for starting The Mysteries of Pittsburgh last Thursday. It was a revelation. I haven't read many good novels recently, so maybe this isn't saying much, but it is the best contemporary novel I've read in years. How had I never heard of it? I knew about Kavalier and Clay, and the Wonder Boys, and I'd seen the Yiddish one, but until I saw Pittsburgh on the shelf at the library, I didn't even know it existed. It's the story of a summer told from the point of view of a young man who has just graduated from college. Much of the novel is taken up with his sexual coming of age, but that makes it sound more lurid than it reads. You ache for the narrator, a sweet, somewhat naive Jewish boy, who is at the same time a brilliantly verbose storyteller and an oddly laconic keeper of secrets (do laconic and lacunae come from the same root? I tried to fit both in here but couldn't pull it off). Chabon has the most amazing facility with language. On nearly every page, there was some turn of phrase, or some image, or some extended metaphor that had me shaking my head in awe. It's not a perfect novel; it's uneven, for one thing. And it loses momentum toward the end. I immediately started reading it again, and on second reading, already what sounded original and fresh the first time through was sounding a bit over the top and self-conscious. But it's still astonishingly good, especially considering that it was his first novel and he was barely out of college himself. I'll put a few excerpts in a comment, but they don't do it justice. You'll just have to read it. And re-read it. There are certain details that just aren't apparent the first time through (e.g: toward the beginning, he describes a picture of his girlfriend; toward the end, he mentions taking the picture. I didn't catch it the first time through but it's a lovely single moment with a gap--lacunae!--in between).

1 comment:

  1. Here are the promised bits from The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon:

    "It was as though she had studied American notions of beauty from some great distance and had come all this way only to find she had overdone the details: a debutante from another planet."

    "I felt happy--or some weak, pretty feeling centered in my stomach, brought on by beer-- at the sight of the fading blue sky tormented at its edges with heat lightning, and at the crickets and the shouting over the water, and by Jackie Wilson on the radio, but it was a happiness so like sadness that the next moment I hung my head."

    "'You read my Cosmo?'
    'I read all of your magazines. I took all the love quizzes and pretended I was you answering the questions.'
    'How did I do?'
    'You cheated,' I said."

    "Each time I mentioned Arthur's name I heard him saying, 'Don't bother,' and felt dizzy; it was like peering over a cliff, and now, as Phlox walked off, the ground on the other side of me split and began to give way. I thought, I fancied, that in a moment I would be standing on nothing at all, and for the first time in my life, I needed the wings none of us has."

    "...I thought of her tenderness and care for me, of her so obvious and persistent affection. It seemed to me that I shouldn't have to think so hard. Something stood between me and Phlox--perhaps it was myself--which made loving her a perpetual effort; she was a massive collection of small, ardent details that I struggled always to keep in order, repeating the Phlox List over and over to myself, because if I forgot one particular of her smile or speech, the whole thing came to pieces. Perhaps I did not love Phlox, after all--I just knew her by heart."